A giant sonic ball pit

Today was a big day because I got to give some of my favourite sheet music to my eldest godchild for his birthday! I am beyond excited to give the gift of Beethoven, but still can’t quite believe that a human being whose parents I introduced and whom I still view as an embryo has learnt the piano seemingly in the blink of an eye! 

I feel like it’s the best gift you can ever give, a truly incredible book or piece of music to experience for the very first time! Don’t get me wrong, a free holiday is always appreciated too if you’re offering. Share music or literature, though, and you hand over the key to a completely different world, minus the queue for the space shuttle. 

The sad fact remains that even if we all listen to new music for every second of every remaining day for the rest of our lives, we’re still going to miss out on most of it! Although I do try my best to multi task (free weights while watching French Netflix being my current favourite) I feel like time is against us. So the question remains, how to fit all of the best things into the few years we have left on this planet? 

Maybe the answer is to share more! I always appreciate it when others tell me their top tips but for some reason want to keep everything I discover all to myself. So I’ve decided I’m going to aim to become one of those people who texts friends songs to listen to over breakfast. Ok, let’s be real, maybe it’s going to be lunch, or dinner, or perhaps a midnight feast. Hell, maybe I’ll even tweet about what I’m hearing and reading sometimes. Let’s all tune out the news and spend the rest of the end of the world hanging out in a giant sonic ball pit! 

Four people having fun in a large ball pit!
NB picture pre dates covid, obvs, in the fun times 😉

New Ears, New Podcast

I can’t quite believe it but the very first episode of Spiral Dial, the podcast, is coming out next Friday the 29th October! Check out the trailer, narrated by the wonderful David Ryder Prangley. You can now follow us on Soundcloud, iTunes, RSS, Google or Spotify to get it as soon as it’s out. Subscribe to read the story for free on our website.

Spiral Dial: The Podcast. Artwork by Pushing Normal

Why so incredulous? Well, some of you may know I was a late starter when it comes to recorded music, having been banned from listening to anything but plainsong for most of my early childhood. My first close up view of a microphone in soundcheck a decade ago almost provoked a panic attack. Fast forward through a few years of hard lurking in other people’s studios and I’d convinced myself I could give this recording lark a good go. 

Talk about a steep learning curve. Having had a hole put in my eardrum by a stray wave in the noughties, I figured I was destined to pan everything slightly too far to the right forever. (Note to all musical surfers: wear earplugs!) 

So I was super excited to discover that after only a few months of working on regular listening exercises I am able to hear sounds that I have never heard before. It’s been like submerging myself in a shiny new acoustic bath, full of bright bubbles exploding into rainbow foam! Not to mention being able to pick out frequencies I thought were destined for only dogs to enjoy. It is one thing knowing you hear with your brain and not your ears, and quite another experiencing the wonder of it first hand. 

The down side of this is that I can now hear exactly how good my early mixes are. (I mean, I can hear exactly how much I have improved…..and plenty still to go!) We started recording this podcast live in October 2020, making musical madness every month to keep us sane. So as you listen to these episodes you really are coming on a journey with us. 

I’m most grateful of all for our subscribers’ support and positivity. You are the ones who make it possible for us to create Spiral Dial! If you’d like to join us and leap into Series Two a whole year early please check out our new shiny subscription options. You can sign up to read the story for free or choose to make a small contribution to support us. 

Existing subscribers panic not, your logins, subscriptions and access remain completely unchanged so get your Dreamies ready, because you have a full Parabolic Purr area pass included as standard! Everyone else, you have a LOT to choose from.

Looking forward to hearing what you all think! Sending you very best wishes and lots of purrs.

SMOOSH!

I’ve wanted to write about this joyous project all week, but I couldn’t quite focus all the splashes of colour, fragments of sound and radiant smiles into words until now. 

I’ve been remembering the faces of the children gathered at the start transforming from dull disinterest to irrepressible glee.  The excitement of the young couple I’d met at the local market earlier in the month who’d come out of curiosity and left beaming. The metamorphosis of musicians not used to walking while playing, let alone dancing, into a mighty column of sound and movement.

Watch out, sousaphones about

I’ve been remembering Cathy, my impossibly glamorous fellow recorder player of over forty years, who was very nearly as astonished to be playing in an orchestra as I was. I’ve been remembering the moment I unexpectedly locked eyes with a dear old friend in rehearsal, the very person who brought music back into my life after my epilepsy diagnosis.

Cathy rocking the recorder!

I’ve also been remembering how I very nearly didn’t audition for Paraorchestra at all, because the word ‘orchestra’ was so irrevocably linked to tearful memories, memories of desperately trying to force my twitching hands to play pieces which my brain couldn’t process. It turns out that the best antidote to trauma is…. fun!

This experience has left me completely in awe of all at Paraorchestra who made such an astonishing event possible. There are too many wonderful people to name so I won’t try. I’m so grateful for all of you and that this magic exists in the world.  

PS Paraorchestra are playing again in Bristol this Friday the 1st October so if you’re in the area it is definitely worth grabbing a ticket here (if they haven’t all gone!) 

Surfing into sinking sand

Feeling so lucky to be at the beach SURFING for the first time in nearly a year! True to form I’ve got lost several times already. Porthcawl may seem like a sleepy seaside town with miles of stunning beaches but it turns out there is more here than first meets the eye.  So far highlights include: many, many Welsh ponies, a flock of geese lapping up the effluent of the local sewage works (niffy), an impassable estuary and a near escape from some sinking sand*, much to the relief of the onlooking RNLI.

Not only that, but I’m en route to Bristol for a week playing (and dancing – trying to, anyway) with a group of people as talented as they are lovely, the amazing Paraorchestra. SMOOSH! is their biggest project yet and I’m so excited to be involved. Featuring 70+ musicians and dancers, the performances are in Knowle West, Bristol on Fri 17 Sep, 4pm & 6.30pm so do join us if you’re in the area.  Check the trailer for a sneak preview!

* legit 100% proof sinking sand, last victim rescued 3 months ago, and yes, you’re right, I am covered in stinky grey mud, and no, these trainers will never be the same colour again.

Anyone for a memory reboot?

Who else likes to think they’re pretty organised? 

Just kidding. I don’t even pretend to be. Apart from a thin veneer of structure imposed on my electronic existence. Pay attention if you’re in the market for a quick fix! This trick consists of starting all file names with the date in reverse year-month-day order, a pearl of wisdom picked up from a super organised medical secretary. Inspired though they were, implementing it in my case is a bit like attempting to timestamp the components of a rapidly expanding seaweed forest- as soon as you pin down one branch, ten more slip away from you in opposing directions.

Recent events have thrown my substandard file management into sharp relief. Two sessions descended into utter chaos due to unexpected computer glitches with the resulting loss of several hours of music. After much swearing and gnashing of teeth it was established that the reason my computer is playing up is that I have filled its brain with large quantities of, shall we say, nonsense. That patch I half downloaded six months ago but then decided it was rubbish? Still there. Those video files I copied over to two external hard drives and a cloud backup? Yup, they’re hanging out in the download folder. That therapeutic essay I wrote while feeling frustrated about someone else’s arsehole behaviour over a decade ago? That’s right, it’s still taking up valuable gigabytes. 

While in the process of clearing out all of this detritus I have been reflecting on how wonderful it would be were we able to do the same kind of clear out with our brains. I know for sure that the memory areas of mine are full of extraneous events which are in many cases boring and in some frankly upsetting. One can of course manipulate one’s memories- every time we think about something we renew it in our minds. That’s how eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, helps to heal traumatic memories. Reliving them in a safe place surrounded by empathy and love and soothing stimuli helps us to recreate them anew, dulling the emotional impact with each retrieval. 

Hoping that someone, somewhere would already have figured out how to do this by now, I had a quick browse of the medical internet. Physical traces of memories have long been spoken of as engrams, quasi mythical structures which have proved extremely challenging to identify using science.  However, a technique called functional MRI imaging allows us to see the location of people’s brain activity as they are trying to suppress unwanted memories. I’ve undergone this process myself when participating in a study on reflex epilepsy and find it uncannily similar to a spa treatment. Lying in a tunnel while listening to repetitive clunking noises and visualising playing music can be incredibly soothing. I imagine that being confined in similar circumstances while remembering your worst experiences would instead be hugely stressful, so I’m grateful to the participants of this study, whoever they may be, for putting themselves through it for our benefit. 

This paper identified that there are two main areas of the brain involved in memory suppression. One is the hippocampus which acts as a kind of guard-seahorse, discouraging us from accessing unwanted memories. The other involves a few different areas in the pre frontal cortex, the same part of the brain where my epilepsy is triggered, which act as a redirect function, sending signals back to more hospitable neurons. 

Unfortunately this is as far as science seems to have progressed at the moment, so anyone else like me who is after a good brain clearout is going to have to resort to non evidence based methods…. Personally, I have a strong feeling that when the mechanisms behind memory are identified our brains are going to look very similar to my hard drive- full of extraneous function impeding rubbish. Bring on the medical equivalent of emptying the trash bin! 

PS The next episode of Spiral Dial is still on track, thanks to the power of hexadecimals- more fixable than brains!

Vampire Deluxe

Calling all otherworldly beings! 

I’ve got a sin that I’ve been saving…..just for you….

Cover of Vampire Deluxe by David Ryder Prangley

David Ryder Prangley’s new album Vampire Deluxe came out on the 4th July on Bandcamp– and it’s an amazing record! Featuring gothic dreamscapes, dark romance and hard rock, it’s what your ears/horns/tails/wings need right now.

I’m proud to have contributed saxophone wailings, recorder warblings and even the odd backing vocal. Recorder spotters, check out Dreaming Spires and Song for a Witch (obviously). 

Half of this album was recorded before lockdown, that time of barely-appreciated freedom. The second half was recorded under different circumstances. I recall playing one particular bit of saxophone in a corridor (social distancing with horns is a struggle!) while trying to avoid incorporating the contributions of Drew’s super cute and extremely over excited dog, Patch. 

We recently convened in a dark abandoned tube station (ok, you got me, it was Storm rehearsal studios!) for our first rehearsal in over 18 months, and let me tell you, dark magic happened. 

It’s worth nabbing a CD both for the music and the amazing inner cover art. I won’t spoil the surprise, but full marks to anyone who can work out who is represented there. (I had to be told….)

David’s gig at Nambucca early in 2020 was the very last pre lockdown gig I played, so it’s fitting that we’re going to be playing one of my first post lockdown shows too! 

Dates so far include: 

15th August The Lexington, London, tickets here

7th October Bristol (venue tba)

14th October Nambucca, London

In other news this week, I have been working on some exciting collaborations (watch this space!). I’ll also be heading down to Bristol very soon to work with Paraorchestra for the first time on a brand new project. Much more coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled. 

Discoveries from Procrastination Valley

We’ve reached that time…. The time of the great Reopening! And while I am almost uncontainably excited about getting out, playing some gigs and seeing real people in the flesh, I must confess that it’s like being at the centre of a vortex. A trip to the local supermarket still feels like attending a rave! 

Inevitably a deluge of work and the resulting stress means a certain amount of time must be spent in Procrastination Valley. Despite this, I have made several useful discoveries this week which I wanted to share with you. 

1) A Mixing discovery! 

monitor selection @Anarres….and thermos, obvs

I usually mix on Yahama HS5s/Auratone Mixcube. Now I’ve been able to afford to get an amp to power my friend Adie’s mighty NS10s while he is sunning himself in Brazil I decided to try using these for the first mix instead of to cross check. Hell, was it frustrating! I left late last night thinking it sounded bloody awful. Frankly, I only bounced something out to feel as if I’d achieved something. 

Listening back this morning on another system, it sounds a whole lot better than my previous first mixes! How crazy is that?

I’m beginning to understand why people like these things….

2) A gaming discovery! 

In the interest of improving my skills (aka procrastinating with a purpose) I have become a member of Soundgym. I can confirm that it is super fun and somewhat addictive! I already have more Soundcoins in my virtual account on there than I do in my actual real bank account. Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing…. But there you are! 

 My favourite is Compressionist, which is pretty funny given that I am the most anti over compression person in the known universe.

Check it out if you’d like something educational to distract you from what you’re meant to be actually doing! 

3) A reading discovery!

My pure procrastinactivity of choice this week has been reading the delightful Homesick by Catrina Davies. She tells the inspiring story of how she moved into an uninsulated shed to escape the housing crisis and reclaim her time and energy for her creative work. 

This really resonated with me as I’m sure it will with every creative person in the UK right now. I made a flying leap onto the fast-receding housing ladder nearly a decade ago with the aid of a few clandestine zero per cent credit cards topping up my ‘deposit’. 

Much like living in a shed, this sort of thing is also against the Rules. Presumably these rules were created by rich people solely to keep poor people paying rent to their betters where they belong. 

As a result of this subterfuge I even have my own garden music studio which makes me unimaginably privileged. Sadly the bank owns most of it, so I’m still indentured! I can only imagine how much I would get done if I had the freedom to spend all of my time writing without worrying about money. Maybe one day we will live in that world. Until then it’s worth opening Homesick and daring to dream. 

PS Check here if you’d like to see one of the things I’ve been procrastinating over!

Endings spark Beginnings

The best part of lockdown for me has been getting to experience all of the treasures which lie hidden just out of sight. In the case of Southside House, I must have run past it hundreds, if not thousands of times without venturing inside. Faint rumours of a vintage sale spread far enough to draw me out across Wimbledon Common this sunny afternoon to discover a magical place.

Adam, the owner, was kind enough to show me the music room, a gorgeous space complete with stunning acoustics. I hear they have a couple of concerts coming up in July- what a beautiful place to play this must be! Sadly the house is up for sale, so the future of musical events there is uncertain. I for one very much hope that it will be preserved. There are too few such venues in London these days.

What a classic tambourine! It instantly reminded me of David Ryder Prangley. I have a feeling he would love to shake this on stage with Rachel Stamp! Sadly it was not for sale!

This isn’t an antique but it certainly transported me back in time: the very first clarinet book I learnt with over thirty years ago! Seeing it in such surroundings made me feel older than I am….

After spending some time browsing the books and bric a brac I got to play football with the extremely energetic dog. Luckily both of us somehow managed to avoid breaking any of the lovely china on display.

It seems everywhere one looks in London these days there are endings. I could feel the emotion in selling so many mementoes of their family. Luckily I was able to give several items a new beginning in a good home….

Yes, you are right, this really is a vintage chamberpot. This will be my father’s new seat of honour! Also note the book, Letters of a Diplomat’s Wife. I’m particularly interested to read this one- a woman’s point of view from those times is rare to find!

This cute mirror is perfect for my dressing table.

Having been refused permission to buy modern matches in the supermarket without ID, it’s reassuring that I’m permitted to buy antique ones…. These will live in the studio with my Canarian lamp!

I’ve always wanted a tea set! And now I have two- this lovely teapot plus a beautiful gold one which is still in its box as I’m contemplating where it will live. (It’s not suitable for pussum antics….) Plus an original Sanatogen jar!

Cassum inspecting a less fragile addition to the kitchen….

I hear they may be having another sale at some point soon, but I won’t be telling you when in case you beat me to it!

The Great Cable Dance

Yesterday I had the pleasure of going to my friend Camilo’s studio and picking his brain for plugin tips. 

He also very kindly lent me a spare Ghaita, which is exciting since mine cracked after a heavy recording session some years back and has never quite been the same!

Camilo is an exceptionally chilled out dude but deceptively organised.  Having spent far too long at Anarres comfortably immersed in my own chaos I was shocked to see that unlike me he does not have a web of purple cables placed at the entrance to his control room to entrap unsuspecting humans. 

Also, you can see the desk. Not only that, there is room for a visitor to put their laptop on it (!). That’s before you even get started on the relative states of our actual DAW sessions. 

So rather than cracking on with plugin related productivity for Episode Eight on my return I decided that it was absolutely essential to sort out the bear trap first. Do I hear you cry “Procrastination!”? Well, you’d be absolutely right. After trekking through the Cable Forest of Faff I thought I’d maximise the work avoidance even further and write this blog about my experiences before getting started on the actual day’s tasks….

The Great Cable Dance

1) Wake full of good intentions and tidy thoughts. Tidy studio, tidy mind. My brain may short circuit but that should not affect my office. Right? 

2) Unplug everything. Half way through remember that it might be a good idea to try and do this in some sort of order to avoid tripling the existing chaos. Especially given that they are all purple. Too late. 

3) Get half way through replugging everything and discover one cable is mysteriously missing. 

4) Where the eff has the bloody thing gone? 

5) Empty out all random cable receptacles throughout the house, including that ten year old paper bag from a now defunct Parisian clothing shop containing three varieties of historic Nokia chargers. (Which I will obviously need when the zombie apocalypse comes, right?) No joy.

6) Bout of gratuitous swearing

7) Collapse in chair. Cats pounce on me and start trying to eat one end of the cable still clutched in my hand.

8) Existential wail time. “Whyyyyy does this always happen to meeeee?”

9) Remember that this is why I never, NEVER tidy the control room. Insight is finally achieved. I also remember the second law of thermodynamics and curse my impulse to fight fundamental principles of Physics. Always stick to the Golden Rule. Which in this case is: if it is plugged in, and working, thou shalt not on any account mess with it.

10) Submit to the natural order of things and get on Amazon, order two replacements just in case I feel like tidying the studio again sometime. Return to what I should have been doing two hours ago. 

You think this has been a waste of time, don’t you? But I am proud to say that I can now see my desk. 

Howling at the moon

A few weeks ago I had that rare lockdown experience- the opportunity to hang out with real people in a real place! Not only that, I got to dress up in a catsuit and howl at a virtual moon. This was a lot of fun, with the marked exception of the four inch heels and resulting foot torture, admittedly entirely my own fault! I hear some people pay for that sort of thing. If you’re one of them, feel free to borrow those boots- permanently! They are easier on the eyes than on the feet. 

Anyway, this is the result! Just Like In A Movie is the result of a collaboration with my dear friend and devilishly talented guitarist Dave Winkler for his band Star Circus which is out today. I recorded the sax parts at my studio, Anarres, last year. Dave and Tony Wilson have worked their magic on them and produced something amazing I would never have dreamed of. It is absolutely and wonderfully Dave, from Sophie Aurelia Young‘s funky zombie choreo to the strong anti-romance message. 

I must also thank the eternally glamorous Miss Fortune, who not only puts in an amazing performance in the video but also found time to enlighten me on the true, deadly nature of split ends, without which I would probably be entirely bald now. I had been planning to abandon hairdressers entirely and go full hippy, but it turns out that if you don’t get a trim the split ends can travel all the way up to your scalp, leaving you with….no hair!! I’ve never booked a haircut faster. 

Dave is also the person who introduced me to the wonderful David Ryder Prangley, one of the most highly creative people in the known universe. David always makes the catchiest songs and films the most wonderful cinematography. He recently released this amazing music video for his song Hello, to which I contributed backing vocals. This is particularly nostalgic as it was recorded partly at  Unit 2 Studios, the physical version of which exists now only in imagination. The track was mixed by the wonderful Drew. Check out this demon dream now!

There’s more coming from David and Dave soon as they both have albums on the way. 

This is of course all a little different to my recent output with Spiral Dial. A friend recently asked me why I have ‘stopped making songs’. Which I didn’t really understand, as I continue to make, and have always made, music. For me all of the projects I do are different aspects of one huge surreal musical playground. As a young child I could be found singing Ave Maria at weddings, performing classical recorder concertos with full orchestra, lurking in the pit of a musical theatre production and improvising witch songs with my brothers in the back of a Daihatsu van. 

I like to think I have taken this comprehensive training forward into my adult musical life. So far this has included:

  • performing Messiaen in a church so cold that finger sensation was entirely lost by the end of the first movement
  • making up lyrics to soft rock classics performed with a novel chord structure at a bicycle helmet promotional dinner in Slough
  • improvising an a cappella recorder and cornet duet (thanks Marcus Hamblett for sticking with me on this one….) to a highly bemused crowd during a synth crash at Roskilde festival
  • singing Fuck Her Gently in place of the best man’s speech at my bandmate’s wedding reception 
  • squatting in fishnet tights and a tutu while singing about terrible one night stands
  • improvising full hour long shows based on poems about panda dreams.

I have played gigs with more than ten thousand people in the audience and fewer than ten, sometimes within the same week. I’m also able to polish off pretty much anyone’s rider, especially if it includes cake or chocolate mousse. The Just Like In A Movie shoot involved late night vegan pizza- Dave has excellent taste in video fuel! 

So I hope you enjoy this rock interlude and all the stops on the musical journey to come! I don’t know what’s coming, and that’s just how I like it….

DISCLAIMER: I’m unlikely to take up the ukulele anytime soon. Apart from that, all bets are off. 

Multi Instrumentalist, Composer and Author